5th District forum

Bleacher Bum David Zingler went to a 5th District forum last and sends along this missive:

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Fine & Ellison feud continues, Lee shines

I turn into American Legion Post 435 in Richfield wondering if I am at the right place. "The sign out front says something about a ‘pot luck'," my wife Kyla points out. Soon however, our doubts are dispelled by a piece of paper directing "candidate forum" attendees to the building's south entrance. Once inside the hall, we are greeted by some friendly, elderly Legionnaires. Independence Party nominee Tammy Lee is off to the left chatting, while Green Party candidate Jay Pond is nearby looking for someone to talk to.

As Kyla and I scope out our seats for the District 5 Congressional debate, Republican Alan Fine and Democrat Keith Ellison arrive, in that order. Lee seems the most energetic and assertive on this night. She works the room with a smile and has a staffer passing out flyers. A table near the entrance is littered with Tammy Lee literature, bumper stickers, window clings and even temporary tattoos. Pond has brought a few bumper stickers, Fine came with a simple press release declaring an endorsement by a "key veterans group" while Ellison materials are conspicuously absent.

After the moderator leads us through the Pledge of Allegiance, the candidates are set for their opening statements, which quickly become a pandering to veterans contest. Ellison tells the sparse crowd of 44 about the veterans-related bills he's sponsored in the Minnesota House, Fine, seated to his left, informs us his father was a "bomber pilot", Lee expresses pride in her grandfathers, both veterans of World War II and Pond touts his father's service in the Korean War.

Ellison is a little off his game tonight. When called up to speak, he does well, but between questions, he seems preoccupied and is constantly fidgeting. Fine appears very at ease in this environment, he is frequently smiling. Lee has a relaxed and confident aura about her, she is "on". Pond, on the far end of the table, sits expressionless.

Other than the moderator's frequent problems with the question rotation, the debate rolls long fairly smoothly. As we near the midpoint a bizarre question about the possible privatization of the US Postal Service is posed to the candidates. Fine is the only candidate to support such privatization.

The mood tenses a few minutes later when the moderator asks the panel "Should elected officials live by the letter of the law?", a question clearly directed at Ellison's past misgivings. The State Representative goes first and shifts the focus to the lawfulness of the federal government. He cites the NSA wire-tapping scandal as an example of the government running afoul of the law. Next, Fine jumps all over the loaded inquiry. He says "no one is above the law" and scrapes with the law should "nullify a leader." Lee and Pond however, don't take the bait and promise to "stick to the issues."

The American Legion has been lobbying for a constitutional amendment banning flag burning for years, so it surprises no one when the issue is raised. Not surprisingly, Ellison and Pond are against such legislation, while Fine supports it. Lee raises a few eyebrows by declaring "this is one issue I agree with Alan" and offering her support. At this point Fine smiles and gives the crowd a thumbs up.

Soon closing statements are upon us. The candidates are predictably asked "Why should we vote for you?" The empathetic Ellison states "everyone counts and everyone matters." He says his candidacy is about peace, universal health care and "stopping the middle class crunch." Fine, going next, says "I care" before launching into a tirade about the Star Tribune's story concerning his alleged 1995 domestic violence incident. The Republican then points out the stories' co-author, Rochelle Olson, is seated next to Ellison's wife, Kim. He claims that fact is "very telling" and exclaims "The only difference between the Star Tribune and the National Enquirer is five letters!"

That gave Lee a tough act to follow. She however, seamlessly shifts the focus back to the issues, speaking about "matters of the family" like health care, public schools and energy. She then denounces the character attacks that are prevalent in the campaign and promises to "bring people together, not tear them apart." Pond closes out the evening by reminiscing about how former senator and presidential candidate George McGovern opened up the discussion concerning the Vietnam War in 1972. The South Dakota native then calls for that kind of discussion to begin about Iraq.

On our way back to the car, Kyla and I run into Keith and Kim Ellison. Not able to help myself, I glance at Kim and say "You were the unexpected star of the show tonight." She smiles and laughs, saying "Yeah, right." The candidate meanwhile, clearly has a thought or two on his mind, but bites his tongue and shrugs.

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